Following an event hosted by the Georgetown International Relations Club last Thursday, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs sat down with Dr. Sam Potolicchio, President of the international leadership training program Preparing Global Leaders, to discuss his extensive experience teaching the skill of diplomatic leadership and the requisite skills of future global leaders.
GJIA: What exactly do your current positions entail? Can you provide us a brief overview of how you got to where you are now?
SP: What I do right now is very complicated. I hold adjunct faculty positions at the Lugar Academy, affiliated with the University of Indianapolis, the Georgetown University Semester in Washington Program, and New York University’s Semester in Washington Program. I am also a professor at the Russian Presidential Academy in Moscow. Additionally, I have my own leadership foundation, Preparing Global Leaders, which has campuses in Russia, Macedonia, and Jordan, and which we’re looking to expand across Italy, Croatia, South Africa, and Mexico. Each week, I teach in the United States on Mondays. I fly to an international city every Tuesday and stay there from Wednesday to Saturday, before flying back on Sundays. I advise political figures and governments abroad, primarily in Eastern Europe. I try to help them communicate, particularly to Western audiences.
How I got there is through an extraordinarily fun journey that included Georgetown, a very formative part of my life. Attending Georgetown was a fantastic experience, in which I fell in love with the intersection of psychology, religion, and government. I was able to take classes in all three departments, and ended up majoring in psychology and government. I then went on to divinity school, where I wanted to examine the intersection of public policy and religion. This was right around the 2004 U.S. presidential election, in which religion assumed an important role. I returned to Georgetown to get my doctorate in government with a special accent on presidential communications. I was, and continue to be, driven by the idea that it is necessary to understand psychology and religious rhetoric in the study of presidential communication.
GJIA: What are some of the benefits and challenges of teaching across many different countries and cultures?
SP: When I was a Ph.D student at Georgetown, I was a teaching assistant for undergraduates but I also taught fifth-grade Latin at the Landon School, a private school in the area, coached middle school basketball, and did high school admissions work all at the same time. My goal was to figure out how to reach as many different audiences as possible, all at different ages and in different places. If you want to be an effective teacher, you need a panoramic understanding of how people learn. The international work I am currently doing is a continuation of what I did with the fifth-grade Latin students, the middle school basketball players, the high school students, and the college students. I’m always trying to figure out how to communicate something to someone with regards to where he or she is, so that it means something to him or her. It’s really exciting to have that challenge—to figure out how to give this person an epiphany moment or breakthrough moment on a difficult issue. I’m really addicted to it. As a teacher, it’s too easy to be teaching the same demographic all the time. Teachers lose some of their skills when they do. Teachers can be at their best when they’re young because they were just recently in the seats of their students. They understand how their students think. I’m trying to keep that up.
GJIA: Are there any prominent examples of either skilled or poor diplomatic leadership that you reference often in your teachings?
SP: I was asked a similar question in Belgrade a few years ago. It was, “Name the three best leaders that you know, work with, or observe in this day and age.” I was overcome and struck with an incredibly dead silence, which is very awkward when you’re on TV and can’t respond to a question like that. I finally said, “It’s the 12 year-old point guard on the middle school basketball team that I coach. He’s the best leader because of the way he involves all of his teammates and the way he thinks about the long-term and not the short-term.”
This is a long way saying that it’s profoundly difficult to point to people and instances of truly impressive diplomatic leadership. This is why I do what I do; I try to get people to think from many different perspectives, instill in them an appreciation for their adversaries and an assumption of the good faith of others, which is a Jesuit expression. Although I don’t like to luxuriate in negative news and headlines, negativity is indeed what inspires me. How do we get people to sit down and truly listen to the other side, to have dialogues instead of monologues? I don’t think that happens enough on the world stage today.
GJIA: What traits or skills would you emphasize to undergraduate students aspiring to be future global leaders?
SP: First, leaders must have an opposable mind, the ability to see the other as someone who can contribute to their own knowledge and future understanding. F. Scott Fitzgerald once claimed that the sign of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to keep two disagreeing ideas on one’s mind simultaneously. We don’t have enough of that today. We live in cocoons in which we only select information we agree with, only spend time with people like ourselves. I’m trying to break this pattern. My foundation selects fifty students from fifty different countries that wouldn’t normally associate with each other—countries like as Serbia and Kosovo, Armenia and Azerbaijan, or Russia and Ukraine.
Secondly, the world needs more “fox-hogs”: individuals whose intelligence combines knowledge of many different things with a deep knowledge of a few particular fields. Georgetown’s liberal arts education urges this. Each student has both the concentration—the major—but also the impetus to take classes in different disciplines. It saddens me that many students elsewhere in the world have to select faculty they want to study with at relatively young ages. Thus, they only take economics classes if they pick the economics faculty, or they only take classes in public policy if they choose the public policy faculty. A diverse, interdisciplinary education grounded in the liberal arts is key to any student’s future success. That’s what I love about what we have here in the United States and, in particular, at Georgetown.
Thirdly, students need to start taking risks early, even if those risks are as small as course selection. You need to be willing to be uncomfortable, put yourself in a situation where you’re not going to be a master, and risk the possibility of failure. Education should inspire students to be lifelong learners, not drive them to graduate with only a particular grade point average or credential in mind.
GJIA: What philosophy or maxim drives your vision of sound diplomatic leadership?
SP: To paraphrase the poet Mary Oliver, people should want to surround themselves with others who look at the world in astonishment and bow their heads in humility. I try to associate with people who are both very curious and very humble about their opportunities. Secondly, when people trip, they find treasure; that is, there are no such things as failures, only learning opportunities. Although this idea might be a huge cliché, I find enormous truth in it. It embodies what leadership should be—responding to crisis and adversity, but also learning things that you don’t get right the first time. If leaders become comfortable putting themselves in positions in which they will probably fail, they’re going to have very interesting lives. When it’s all said and done, living an interesting life with people who are special to you is indeed the sign of a life well-lived.
Dr. Sam Potolicchio is the Distinguished Professor and Department Chair of Global Leadership Studies at the Russian Presidential Academy, the largest university in Europe, and President of the Preparing Global Leaders Foundation, an international leadership training program with campuses in Russia, Macedonia, Jordan, and the United States. Dr. Potolicchio is the Visiting Senior Lecturer at the Lugar Academy at the University of Indianapolis and a Visiting Professor at Georgetown University and New York University. In 2012, the Princeton Review named him one of its “Best Professors in America,” the only one chosen from his field.
Dr. Potolicchio was interviewed by Nick Sardi and Sydney Jean Gottfried on 6 November 2014 in Washington, D.C. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.